Activism to Go

New technologies should make participation easier for ALPA’s mobile membership.

Air Line Pilot, August 2001, p.14
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

You’re heading out the door for a 6 a.m. show time, running your pre-trip checklist:

* Uniform pressed and professional? Looking good.
* Flight bag in order? Roger that.
* Enough gas to get to the airport? On fumes and a prayer, but yes.

You’re congratulating yourself on how "together" you are for an extended road trip, when you remember the unmarked ALPA ballot in the middle of the kitchen counter—the one your reps urged you to return to determine your future.

Oh, well. Guess you won’t be the captain of your own destiny this day.

Or this scenario—six contract roadshows coming up, to explain a highly complex tentative agreement. The problem is, while every single one of those roadshows is going on, you’ll be loading passengers, or offloading freight, halfway around the world.

Tough luck, pal.

But computer technology may be changing both scenarios. The day has arrived when an ALPA member who wants to take an active role in the union can complete the link to many of the chances to do so (such as voting in a local council election or parsing new contract language) with the click of a mouse or the tap of a telephone key.

While ALPA pilot volunteers have been studying new representational designs to make the union more responsive to members, the union has also been working to modernize the institution’s "mechanical systems"—testing out and introducing new technologies. The result is that many activities that used to require mounds of paper, or a major outlay of dues money, or scores of pilot posteriors glued to seats somewhere, simply may not require those much longer.

Some of the new technologies have been rolled out and passed their test flights. Others are still under development. But all promise an exciting, and involved, future for ALPA members.

Call it "democracy on the fly."


While other unions may have larger constituencies, probably none are as mobile, or as attuned to technology, as airline pilots. For that reason, ALPA has continued to expand its computer capabilities to link members with the conduct of ALPA business, as much as realistic budgeting and prudence have allowed.

From the CompuServe forums to the development of ALPA’s website, introduced in 1997, and the members-only Intranet, which followed in 1998, the Association’s online communications vehicle has evolved to keep members informed and involved, even while they are on a trip.

But text and graphics were only the beginning.

The Association took its first foray into video on the web during the November 2000 Board of Directors meeting, when it ran the Board’s opening video, "Strength from Within," as a link off the public website.

The Comair pilot group used video streaming to good advantage during its just-concluded strike, compiling and archiving its news media coverage on its own area of the web.

The Association is also providing audio streaming of VARS messages for master executive councils that request it, says Jim Barnett, director of ALPA’s Information Systems and Services. At this writing, the Alaska, Atlantic Coast, Atlas, Midwest Express, Piedmont, PSA, and United MECs are using the system.

Members with access to a computer, modem, and sound card may listen to messages on-line, saving the 800-number costs, which can run into thousands of dollars for their pilot groups.

On May 17, Delta pilots took part in an ALPA "first"—the first webcast of a contract roadshow, presented as one of nine to explain provisions of Delta’s tentative agreement to members.

While more than a thousand pilots attended the presentation in person at the Georgia International Convention Center, others who logged in to the 6-hour broadcast could view the same PowerPoint presentation via their computer screen and hear the audio feed explaining the individual sections, along with questions from the floor.

A broadcast-quality video feed of the entire presentation (that is, showing the presenters, the audience interaction, etc.) would have been an expensive proposition, but because the slides were of primary interest, organizers of the webcast elected to link the PowerPoint package and the audio feed for the Delta pilot audience.

The cost of the presentation was roughly $2,800. "It was a very cost-effective method of getting the message out," says Barnett.

Capt. Andy Deane, director of media relations for the Delta MEC, says the technology, for Delta and other pilot groups, may be the wave of the future for transmitting information to pilots. "We pilots are a tough group. A lot of us commute. A third of us may be off flying at any one time," says Capt. Deane, a B-767 pilot based in New York.

Though the Delta pilots’ roadshows, with so much at stake, were well attended, the webcast allowed even more of the pilot group’s 10,000 members to be informed voters.

"The largest turnout at any of the roadshows was 1,100 pilots," Capt. Deane says. Seattle-based Real Broadcast Network, which hosted the 6-hour webcast, reported 2,200 total accesses, with pilots tuning in, on average, for 45 minutes.

Real Network also archived the webcast on the website for 30 days after the actual broadcast, Capt. Deane notes. The archived version permitted the viewer to scroll through the presentation backward and forward quickly, allowing pilots to access only the segment(s) of the presentation that they wished.

Capt. Deane says the success of the webcast provides an incentive for using the technology for other information campaigns. "This gives us the opportunity to make a pretty nice presentation that our pilots can pick up anywhere in the world."

In early June, the Delta MEC also provided for audio-only webcasts of three question-and-answer sessions with members of the pilots’ Negotiating Committee.

Those sessions, set up through conferencing and audio streaming arranged by AT&T, allowed Negotiating Committee members sitting around a conference table at the Delta MEC offices in Atlanta, ALPA staff there and in Washington, D.C., and attorneys from Cohen, Weiss, and Simon, LLP, in New York City to answer questions called in or e-mailed from Delta pilots. Approximately 500 pilots logged on for the first session.

"It was a little bit of a Rube Goldberg set-up," Capt. Deane laughs, referring to the configuration of telephone lines that allowed all the speakers at various sites to be conferenced in at Atlanta while one line was kept free for pilot callers.

But the broadcast went smoothly, the sound was good, and "all the feedback was positive," Capt. Deane says.

With the success of such ventures, speculating about extending the technology to other gatherings of ALPA pilots is not hard.

The US Airways MEC, in fact, began experimenting this year with an "MEC cam"—broadcasting images from its MEC meetings, along with brief text descriptions of what’s transpiring at the meeting.

Text, but no live audio.

Don’t look for live webcasts of MEC or LEC meetings anytime soon—if ever.

ALPA’s Executive Council in January 2000 endorsed the recommendations of a special committee tasked with studying the issue of videotaping and broadcasting reports and deliberations of local councils and other governing bodies.

The committee reported that the drawbacks—and the potential dangers —of using the technology to transmit the discussions engendered at the sometimes-freewheeling ALPA meetings far outweighed the benefits it might afford, and recommended that such recording not be undertaken "either officially or unofficially by any governing body or member of the Association."

"We closed the door on it hard, and we did it for a very good reason," said Capt. Rich Siakel (Northwest), who chaired the Videotaping and Electronic Recording Committee.

Having the camera’s unblinking eye trained on a union meeting in session might well inhibit free discussion from the floor. "The presence of…devices to [record] discussions regarding certain subject matter may curtail a participant’s ability and willingness to express himself in an effective manner," the Committee reported.

Even if it didn’t, Capt. Siakel added, the Committee also had very strong concerns about misuse of those tapes, much like ALPA’s concern about videotaping in the cockpit.

"Anything you say can and will be used against you by the opposition," Capt. Siakel added. "Broadcasting a pre-scripted, controlled event like a roadshow is fine. We’ve done that many times. But that is totally different from an LEC meeting where ideas are meant to be thrown around and opposing views are meant to be heard. Those ‘sound bites,’ particularly if you’re in negotiations, can be problematic."

Just ask union reps from the National Football League Players Association, an organization that found some of its member discussion—certainly not intended for prime time—aired in the pages of The New York Times 2 years ago.

The NFLPA had contracted with a Florida videotaping company, Sportsolution, to record its meetings over a 31-month period. When the players union and the contractor later became embroiled in a dispute over payment for the tapes, Sportsolution threatened to turn the tapes over to the news media and later made good on the threat. The NFL office, which administers league-wide disciplinary policy for the owners, also had access to the tapes.

Video or audio tapes of live ALPA meetings could be obtained by airline managements and play havoc with negotiations, or subject individual pilots or the Association as a whole to the threat of lawsuits, the Committee cautioned.

"Technology is a good thing, but it has its place," Capt. Siakel added. "Just because you can" make an instantaneous and easily obtainable record of every interaction between a union and its members, Capt. Siakel said, "doesn’t mean you necessarily should."

"Paperless" balloting

Computer technology has had its effect on ALPA’s voting procedures as well.

Over the past 2 years, ALPA’s governing bodies have approved changes to ALPA’s Constitution and By-Laws and Administrative Manual to wean the Association away from mail balloting for elections and referenda and lead it to conducting these votes via telephone and, this fall, via Internet.

For an ALPA pilot who may be called on to cast a vote while (choose one) at home, in a crash pad, in a layover hotel, or on vacation, it was a significant breakthrough.

ALPA’s vice-president–administration/secretary, Capt. Jerry Mugerditchian, says the Association began looking into telephone balloting for expedited contract ratification approximately 2 years ago, to prepare for a possible strike at United. [The United pilots ultimately achieved their contract in October 2000 without a strike.]

"Trying to get an expedited paper ballot out is a cumbersome process, especially when airplanes are not moving and a pilot group’s members may be stranded away from home," notes Capt. Mugerditchian.

ALPA’s Executive Board in November 1999 gave the go-ahead to permit expedited contract ratification using secret telephone balloting.

The Alaska MEC was the first group to use it, in July 2000, for a vote on a side letter of agreement to the pilots’ contract regarding installation of ACARS in the cockpit.

America West, Atlas, and Emery pilots also used it (in Emery’s case, for member ratification of its tentative agreement in late August 2000).

United pilots did get a turn at telephone balloting for member ratification of their new contract in October 2000.

Capt. Rick Dubinsky, United MEC chairman, says the balloting of United’s approximately 9,000 pilots went off virtually without a hitch. "The response [to the telephone ballot] was impressive," he says, as all but roughly 800 of the pilot group’s 8,800 eligible members cast votes. "The system worked well for us, particularly with a large contingent flying international."

Comair and Delta pilot leaders also put telephone balloting to the test—Comair on management’s two ill-fated "settlement offers" before approving the tentative agreement on June 22, and Delta for its strike ballot in January and ratification of its new industry-leading contract on June 20.

Based on these positive results, the Association has moved to further expand the use of "paperless" balloting to local executive council elections beginning this fall and to add another dimension—voting via the Internet.

So that all of ALPA’s 47 pilot groups aren’t going through elections at the same time, they’re placed into one of two election groups, coming up for election in alternating years. Group II carriers this fall will conduct elections via telephone and Internet both.

Joan Gallahan, manager of ALPA’s Membership Services Department, explains that balloting will be conducted through an independent Internet site rather than ALPA’s own website. A bonded, certified outside vendor (which has conducted elections for the Southwest Airline Pilots Association and other organizations) guarantees the security of the balloting process.

An ALPA pilot, using his or her member number and password, may sign on to the site and cast a vote within the time frame allotted for the election process. Pilots without computer access may vote by telephone, and their telephone vote will be combined with the Internet votes and included in the electronic tally. Pilots are able to change their vote until the balloting period closes, without the hassle of having to request a new paper ballot.

ALPA’s Election and Ballot Certification Board (EBCB) must still certify the results of the vote and will also continue to hear any voting challenges, if it is called on.

The EBCB’s chairman, Capt. Gil Coshland (United), says the new electronic procedures do away with the laborious task of opening, sorting, and counting paper ballots by hand, which in the past could take pilot volunteers and staff many hours to complete. A general membership ballot of ALPA’s 66,000 pilots (such as a vote to continue strike benefits, for example), could take groups of six or seven EBCB members, working in shifts, as long as 16 hours to tally.

The decision to use an outside contractor was part of a concern about impartiality: "An outside contractor would have no horse in the race," says Capt. Coshland. "It has no reason to be anything but impartial."

How do the costs of the new balloting processes compare? "Practically speaking, it’s probably a wash," says Capt. Mugerditchian, because the Association still incurs the cost of mailing nomination ballots and voting instructions to members.

But convenience, not cost-cutting, was the aim here. ALPA leaders are hoping that the "power of the computer," or the telephone pad, will enfranchise more members, and that may indeed be proving to be true.

"We seem to be getting a much higher rate of return on ballots," Capt. Mugerditchian says of the telephone voting. "Pilots can carry that 800 number with them and make the call from a crew lounge or during a two-hour layover somewhere."

Voting via the Internet is "just a further step—the way of the future," Capt. Mugerditchian says. "We’re improving the system as we go."


If you’ve ever prepared your tax returns with TurboTax, you know how video clips from tax experts and links to other useful information enliven and clarify the dry IRS information on filling out the tax forms.

ALPA’s Membership Committee is planning to produce a similar "multimedia" presentation for new ALPA members using CD-rom technology.

The Membership Committee’s chairman, Capt. John Sluys (Alaska), says he hopes that distribution of the CD-ROMs will begin this fall.

Capt. Sluys says that the disks are expected to be configured with PowerPoint and RealPlayer or other video presentation software, so that users will be able to access a variety of information summaries, film clips, and other venues.

He says that the disk will be set up "like a web page," that is, directing the viewer to "presentations on ALPA history, services, departments," and the like.

Where appropriate, the disk will direct the viewer to ALPA’s public website and private Intranet site. "The idea is not to supplant, but to augment the website," he adds.

Capt. Sluys is convinced that CD-ROMs provide "a very reasonable, low-risk method" of distributing information to members. Over the last 2 years, he points out, "we’ve not had a single pilot come to work at Alaska Airlines who did not have an e-mail address."

ALPA overall has more than 40,000 pilots with e-mail addresses on file with the Association.

"Many of these pilots have a CD-rom on their computer for their kids," he says, "or they have access to a computer with a CD-rom."

He’s willing to bet about a buck and a half that they do.

Last year, the Committee mailed a video and a thick information packet to new members, "and the production and mailing costs really shot a hole in my budget," Capt. Sluys laughs.

Producing as many as 10,000 CD-ROMs costs less than $1 apiece, with mailing costs about the cost of a first-class stamp, he adds.

The Committee is looking to these new technologies as a way to stretch limited funds to reach more members with more information.

Capt. Sluys says that he can see CD-ROM technology supplementing ALPA’s communications efforts on a number of fronts, such as at the conclusion of negotiations, to convey contractual information so that pilots are better prepared to discuss contract provisions at roadshows in person or via the Internet; and for organizing drives, to explain the need for a union and why ALPA is unique among unions—that is, as his committee hopes to use it, for a little high-tech proselytizing.

The Membership Committee is "continually educating or reeducating members about ALPA and what it does," he says, and the CD-ROM will try "to reinforce the message about the importance of involvement."

Capt. Sluys sees ALPA’s membership chairmen as the Association’s de facto "sales force," carrying the message of the union’s value and the members’ role in keeping the institution viable and effective.

Spreading that message via CD-ROM is probably a shrewd business move. Just remember what the distribution of a few million CD-ROMs did for a northern Virginia businessman by the name of Steve Case.

ALPA Policies on Elections in the Electronic Age

Over the last year, ALPA’s Executive Board has amended a number of the procedures and policies surrounding local elections, many of them recognizing members’ increasing access to electronic communication. Following are some of the highlights:

Willingness to serve

Nominations for ALPA local council elections will be conducted as they always have been, i.e., with paper ballots. But the Executive Board has specified that nominated candidates must make their "willingness to serve" declaration before the end of the nominating meeting; that declaration may be made by electronic means: "A member must declare his willingness to serve in writing to the Local Council Chairman or his designee prior to the adjournment of the Council meeting …to appear on the election ballot. A declaration by fax or e-mail or completion and return of the willingness-to-serve [box] on the nominating ballot will be acceptable."

E-mail campaigning

The Board has also amended the Association’s guidelines for candidates for office (the full text is contained in ALPA’s Administrative Manual, Section 90, Part 15) to include provisions for candidates who wish to cir-culate campaign literature via e-mail.

The Association has never provided candidates with address lists of ALPA members for use in campaigning, and the same prohibition applies to e-mail addresses. ALPA’s home office can distribute campaign literature via regular or e-mail, with the candidate bearing the cost of preparation and distribution.

Other specifics include the following:

* A candidate may choose to distribute campaign literature only to members with e-mail addresses on file or by e-mail to members with e-mail addresses on file and by postal mail to other members.

* Campaign literature submitted for e-mail distribution has to be static in nature and not include any active links to other websites.

* The Executive Council may, in its discretion, establish reasonable limitations on the number, frequency, type, and size of e-mail campaign distributions by a candidate.

In addition, the Labor Management Recording and Disclosure Act (popularly known as the Landrum-Griffin Act) seeks to ensure that union officers do not have an unfair advantage in electioneering. Consequently, pilots who are current office-holders or otherwise engaged in ALPA work are not permitted to use any ALPA-provided resource for campaigning. The prohibition applies to an ALPA-provided phone or fax, computer, or Internet service provider (ISP).

Candidate information that is run in any print or e-mail newsletter must be confined to biographical data and not be a statement of qualifications that may be construed as an endorsement.

Electronic voting

Each eligible ALPA member who wishes to vote must have his or her ALPA member number and Intranet password to access the voting system. (Members are reminded to include all seven digits of their member number, including the leading zero.)

A member may be denied access if he or she does not enter accurate information or if the member is ineligible or in bad standing.

A member may reenter the voting system at any time to change a previously cast vote, up until the end of the balloting period.

At the conclusion of voting, the balloting service will tally and transmit two files to the Association: the first will contain the names, local council affiliation, and member numbers of those who voted, and a second file will set forth results of the vote. The service will not transmit to the Association any data indicating how any member voted.

The Election and Ballot Certification Board will review and certify the results, which the Association will retain for at least 1 year.